The sun was going down and the shadows from the Venetian blinds made the desk in my office look like it was covered in zebra skin. It had been a long day and my eight cups of coffee had already worn off when I heard a knock at the door. I sighed. It had already been one of those fourteen-hour days at the diploma factory, and I wasn’t keen to make it fifteen.
My name’s Carpenter. I’m a lit. teacher.
Before I answered, I started to pack up my gear so that whoever-it-was would get the message. “Door’s open,” I said. I made sure not to look up.
That’s when she walked in. I could tell right away she wasn’t one of my students. If the fact that she was 20 years older than most of them wasn’t enough of a give away, the Manolo Blahniks certainly were. I knew a Williamson County trophy wife when I saw one. Couldn’t imagine what she wanted with me.
“You’re Dr. Carpenter? My name is Gwendolyn Faircloth. They said you might still be here and—”
“Can the explanations, sweetheart. It’s late. Just spill it.” Last thing I needed was some sob story about how I must help her darling Johnny who’d been kicked out of nine other colleges. Just bribe an admissions counselor like everyone else, I always say.
“Dr. Carpenter, I have a problem.”
“If you got a problem, take it up with the math department.”
“No, it’s a book problem. A … comic book problem actually. I was told you deal with such things?”
It wasn’t really a question, but she sold it like one anyway. I figured she probably wanted to sell little Johnny’s longbox collection and wanted an appraisal. Like I care. So I just played like Buster Keaton and gave her the old stone-faced stare.
“Well, anyway, if it’s true that you know something about … comic books … well, I’m trying to track down a copy of … what was it he called it? The first graphic novel.”
I was working hard not to laugh. The first graphic novel. I had heard it all before. It was like that Gotye song from a couple years ago. Nice enough the first time you heard it, but after the 37th time it was enough to make you want to drive out to a farm somewhere and start killing goats—just for having the same name.
“Tell me a little more about this book. Who’s it by?”
“Oh, I think I wrote that down. Let’s see … yes, it was a Mr. Strakano.”
I leaned back in my chair and smiled. “Steranko. Jim Steranko. Yeah. Book’s called Red Tide. It’s good.”
“Is that the one? The first graphic novel?”
“Depends on who you ask. Some people have called it that. Others don’t think it’s a graphic novel at all.”
“So what do you call it?”
“I call it $100 a day plus expenses if you want me to find the book.”
Next thing you know, Gwendolyn Faircloth was gone and I was on the case. Red Tide … I knew that book pretty well. Or one of ‘em anyway. You see, there were two Red Tides that came out in the ‘70s—a really nice one in a large format, very impressive. And then there was the other one. The one I had. It was small—digest-size they called it, printed on cheap newsprint.
But it was special, even if no one knew what to call it. According to the cover it was a “visual novel” which was code for please-whatever-you-do-don’t-call-it-a-comic-book. It was a hardboiled prose novella with lots of illustrations—two per page all very symmetrical. The pictures took up the top 2/3 of the page and were all the same size. The words filled out the rest. That meant it wasn’t just an illustrated novel. Those pictures had to be neatly matched with those handful of sentences on each page. That’s not easy to do and there’s no way to edit the writing later on.
The drawings were classy—every one of them could’ve been a poster or a book cover. They didn’t really convey movement or action like most comic book art, but they were iconic. Steranko could establish mood better than Barry White in a honeymoon suite. Those pictures were like the etchings of a primal world ripped right out of the cultural imagination—full of private eyes, femmes fatales, cranky cops, and double-crossing gangsters.
The story itself was okay. It followed the hardboiled detective formula pretty closely so the detective, Chandler, wasn’t all that smart. He certainly wasn’t the kind of sleuth you get in the British mysteries. Chandler was a regular guy—but tough—and he didn’t know what he was doing most of the time. Like most of the great hardboiled detectives, Chandler just stumbled through the story getting beat up every few pages. He even admits at one point that he didn’t expect to figure everything out until he had the killer in his gunsights.
But even though the mystery itself was predictable in the middle and fuzzy around the edges, the writing was better than you might expect. It wasn’t just a pastiche—you know those cheap, mocking, knockoffs you find written by hacks who think they can slap together some world-weary cynicism and an awkward metaphor or two and then pronounce themselves Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. I hated those kinds of posers like a priest hates people who put tadpoles in the holy water.
Anyway, Steranko included lots of period details that make the story more than a simple knockoff. It’s set in New York in the early ‘40s—probably 1941 given that no one seems to have heard of Pearl Harbor yet. There’s a marquee for a Cole Porter musical, Panama Hattie, that ran from ‘40-’42, and since The Maltese Falcon movie came out in ‘41, that works for me. Steranko also tosses in lots of references to people like Louis Lepke, Frank Costello, Walter Winchell, and the former president of Mexico, Pascual Ortiz Rubio. That’s a lot of texture for a throwaway mystery.
So yeah, I knew this book. And I also knew just how I could get my hands on another copy. But that meant I’d have to talk to Carolyn. You see, Carolyn was the campus librarian, but she was also the go-to person for anything you needed to find that couldn’t go through normal channels.
I found her behind the reference desk of the library, going through some paperwork. “Hey Carolyn. I need a favor.”
Her eyes peeked over the rim of her glasses in a way that managed to look down on me even though I was six inches taller. “Let me guess,” she said, “a Ben-Hur, 1860, 3rd edition with an error on page 116?”
“That’s cute. But I really do need to find a book.”
“Well take it up with Dewey Decimal. I work for a living.”
For a librarian, Carolyn had a mouth on her. I reached out and tapped the countertop in front of her. Funny, I hadn’t noticed there being a $20 bill there when I got there. I glanced over towards the door and then looked down again. It was even funnier how quickly Andrew Jackson could disappear.
Carolyn slipped something in her pocket and then asked, “Well what’s the title, Bob Vila? Don’t keep a girl in suspense.”
“Hey, cut it with the Bob Vila routine. Guy’s not even a real carpenter, so that joke’s two shades shy of funny. Book I’m looking for is called Red Tide. It’s a comic book.”
“Aren’t you a little old for the funnybooks?”
“How soon can you get it?”
The next morning when I came to the office there was a package waiting for me. The note read, “Ben-Hur, 1860.” It was time to make the call.
When Gwendolyn Faircloth entered the office, I tossed her the package, sans note.
“The stuff dreams are made of, sweetheart.” She smiled, but when she opened it, she made the kind of face you only see when someone steps on a dead squirrel and has to peel it off the bottom of their shoe.
“I don’t understand, Dr. Carpenter. You were supposed to get me … this doesn’t look like anything special. I paid you to find the first graphic novel.”
“Listen, lady. You wanted Red Tide, you got it. It’s a great book. It’s got great art and a pretty good story. It was made with a great deal of care, and it played an important part in changing the comics industry. You or your spoiled brat or whoever you’re getting it for oughtta be pleased with that and call it a day.
“But sending me out on a search for the ‘first graphic novel’ is just a glorified snipe hunt. There’s no such thing as the first graphic novel. Steranko, Will Eisner, Gil Kane, Lynd Ward … nobody agrees on what counts as a graphic novel and nobody agrees on what was first.
“The development of something like the graphic novel is a gradual, organic thing. What was the first poem? Can you name the first opera? Who wrote the first short story? Besides, we quit caring about who came in first when we’re in grade school. Only people who care about being first are jocks and crooked politicians.
“But what you hold in your hand is an important piece of comics history. It’s experimental, it expanded our understanding of format, style, and subject matter, and it’s a really fun read.”
She held it for a moment longer, staring at the cover, then dropped it on the desk. “I don’t think my son will want this, Dr. Carpenter. He wanted an investment. You’ve given him—”
“—a book.” I sighed and tossed four crumpled twenties on the desk. “Here you go. I’m keeping the other $20. You can take the book or not.”
She started to leave, but paused at the door. “You think it’s good?”
I smiled. “Only one way to find out.”
She snatched the book and marched out of the office. Maybe I shoulda told her Dark Horse was releasing a fancy Artist’s Edition of it soon, but this was better. It was purer. Besides, I fancied the idea of the newsprint from that shabby little digest book smudging the leather interior of her Mercedes. Then I walked over to my bookshelf and pulled out my own weather-beaten copy of Red Tide. It had been awhile, so I leaned back in my chair, propped my feet up on the desk, and started to read.
The man must have been right on my heels because by the time I settled into the familiar swivel chair, he snapped the door open…